Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

I am writing this in response to Alex’s question about why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach. Let me say before I begin that the case I want to make has already been made far more eloquently by Michael Swan in his 1985 articles in the ELT Journal. If you have not read these, please do. In my opinion, they should be compulsory reading for all language teachers.

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1)

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2)

One problem with discussing the Communicative Approach is that the term has come to mean different things to different people. I recently had a very heated discussion with a Japanese teacher of English about Communicative Language Teaching. He insisted that my interpretation was out of date, and that CLT is actually just an umbrella term for any kind of teaching where the goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate. Under the “correct” definition, he claimed, CLT actually embraces things like Grammar-Translation and the Audio-Lingual Method.

If this were truly the case, I would have no arguments with CLT, although I would question the usefulness of a term that claims to cover every other method and approach that preceded it. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing CLT in the way that it was taught to me in London in the 1990’s, which is also the way it seems to me to have been interpreted by most teachers I have met over the course of my career.

I do not want to get into a “Smith (1996) wrote that… but her point was later countered by Jones (1997)” type of debate, so please do not send me a list of references that you think I need to read. Having at last finished my PhD, I am taking a break from reading academic books and articles for a while! Anyway, my understanding of the Communicative Approach is that it claimed that real communication is not only the goal of language learning, but also the process through which languages are learned. Put simply, you don’t just learn to communicate, you learn by communicating.

Now this was a valuable insight, and it led to the development of a great many useful teaching tools such as information-gap exercises and discussion activities. However, it shot itself in the foot (or at least, many of its evangelical proponents did) by claiming that real communication was the only way to learn a language. Because of this, classroom activities that were not based on authentic communication were deemed useless and outdated. The worst that could be said of any teaching technique or material in the heyday of CLT was that it was “not communicative” (cue gasp of horror).

I specifically remember being told in my teacher training course that it was unproductive to ask a student a question to which you already know the answer, since there is no possibility of genuine communication taking place. Can you see the problem here? The suggestion that we should ask students questions to which we genuinely do not know the answer is a nice one, but it is a very big jump from there to “and so you should never ask a question unless you do not know the answer.” The other night, my French teacher had us chain-drilling “What’s your name?” and “How do you spell it?” around the class. Everyone already knew everyone else’s name, but the point of the exercise was for us to practice the pronunciation of the alphabet. There was no real communication taking place, but it was still very useful practice, and every student in the room was fully engaged in the activity.

To be fair, I don’t think that all of the proponents of CLT meant it to be taken to quite such extremes, but that does not change the fact that it was. I remember sitting in a presentation once where the presenter was describing a conversation that she had been practicing with her students in the classroom. One woman in the audience raised her hand and said in a very officious tone, “I could never imagine myself having a conversation like that in real life.” Most of the audience nodded wisely and tut-tutted at the presenter’s use of such a contrived dialog. I remember thinking, “So what? What has that got to do with whether it is useful in a classroom or not?”

When I started studying Japanese, I remember one lesson in which we learned about prepositions. We engaged ourselves for about an hour with conversations along the lines of “Where is the pen?” “It’s under the book” and a range of variations that I’m sure you can imagine for yourselves. As both parties to the conversation could clearly see both items, it would be difficult to claim that there was any real communication taking place. There was, however, a great deal of language learning taking place. Some CLT zealots might suggest putting the students back-to-back so that one of them could not see the pen or the book. Frankly, I find that a bit silly. All of us were quite aware that the purpose of the activity was simply to practice the prepositions and relevant grammar structure, and everyone seemed to find it quite beneficial enough without having it turned into “pseudo communication.”

Another unfortunate result of CLT has been textbooks that are really nothing more than a series of recipes for activities. What happened to the wonderful books of yesteryear that had detailed explanations of grammar and pages and pages of practice activities? A dangerous consequence of the CLT revolution has been the idea that if the students are communicating, then they must be learning. This has led many teachers to assume that all they need to do is set up communicative activities and the learning will take care of itself. I remember being told during my training that that one of the greatest evils in the language classroom is TTT (teacher talking time), and that this should be kept to a minimum at all costs because it takes up time that students could be using to communicate with each other. In many EFL situations, however, the teacher is the only access students have to native or proficient speakers of the language, and listening to the teacher talk is both useful and beneficial for them.

To sum up, the reason I am not a big fan of CLT is not because of the ideas it introduced, but because of the way its proponents tried to push aside and devalue other ideas about language learning on the basis of no hard evidence whatsoever. Communicative exercises most certainly have their place in the language classroom, but so do focused grammar study, substitution, rote-learning, and a host of other techniques and activities that are quite clearly “not communicative.”


Comment from David
May 13, 2014 at 12:54 am

Hi Robert,
Thanks again for the link. I’m just watching the video now. Jeremy Harmer very succinctly makes the point that I was trying to make in my most recent post. In his words, the biggest problem with CLT is that “it means everything and anything to anybody.” He goes on to say, “and that is not good enough for a model of teaching.” A big A-men to that!

Comment from David
May 14, 2014 at 2:10 am

Hi again Robert,

I have just finished watching the video, and it has inspired me to write another post, so thank you for that! I would love to hear your comments on the new post when it is published.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » A Discussion about Communicative Language Teaching
May 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

[…] a comment on one of my previous posts, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach,” a reader very kindly posted a link to a video of a discussion between Jeremy Harmer and […]

Comment from m assar
May 28, 2014 at 9:18 pm

thank you for your very helpful article.i’m an English teacher from Iran.we ‘ve had the same revolution in teaching language in our country too.unfortunately after finishing an educational year i found that my students have learnt very little regarding the time taken to teach them.the reason ,i think ,was the absolute use of clt as the only regarded effective method.i agree with you.we would better to act selectivly with no prejudice on the most fashionable method. thank you for your help again.

Comment from David
May 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

Thanks for your comment. When I talk to Western teachers of English about this, everyone says, “No one thinks that CLT is the only way you should teach nowadays.” As your comment shows, however, there are many countries in which it is still being put forward as the most effective approach to language teaching.

Comment from Eduardo Fernandez
May 24, 2015 at 10:10 pm

Hello Prof. David:In Costa Rica were I teach English, it has become an essential activity for getting a fairly good job in foreign companies. On the other hand, these companies evaluate a high level of English over the applicants, with grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening activities. As you can see, Communication only is not enough for latin americans to apply for work in foreign companies. English learning is a process of time and effort and that takes time. Maybe the easy solution is to learn communicative English but only for communication purposes. Thank you.

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Pingback from Why the Communicative Approach Is Holding You Back in Language Learning | Language Surfer
September 8, 2015 at 5:33 pm

[…] best, most concise definition I’ve seen comes from David Barker in an article on Azar […]

Comment from Christine Jost
September 10, 2015 at 11:08 am

Is the Communicative Approach the same as “Communicative Language Learning”? Is it the same as the “Natural Approach”? Thanks!

Comment from David Barker
September 10, 2015 at 2:11 pm

Hi Christine. With anything concerning the word “Communicative/communicative” in EFL, the answer to your question depends largely on who you ask and at what point in time you ask them. That’s the main problem of Communicative Language Teaching: it means different things to different people. The Natural Approach is something quite different, however. You can get lots of information about all these terms by googling them. Hope that helps.

Comment from Stuart
November 19, 2015 at 10:07 am

My message may be slightly off topic, but I am considering studying for the DELTA. Based on some of the comments written here, I’m having doubts as to whether it is worth it? What do you think?

Comment from David Barker
November 19, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Hi Stuart, I found the DELTA to be far more beneficial than the CELTA because all the “students” were already experienced teachers. The trainers acknowledged this, and they were much more open to different ideas and opinions. I don’t know anyone who has done the DELTA and regretted it, so my advice would be to go for it.

Comment from Eva Dickman
December 5, 2015 at 8:08 am

Why engage your students? One reason is to let them enjoy the thrill of discovery. This is what Montessori is all about; not to kill curiosity, but to feed it. Lay out all the clues/facts and ask your students to come up with the rule or reason. It makes class fun for everyone. My Linguistics professor does this and that’s why I LOVE her class. Forcing information down student’s throats to meet targets will keep a teacher on schedule, but the lessons are soon forgotten.

Comment from Smith
March 12, 2016 at 4:38 am

Your ideas of the CLT are encouraging.Thank you.

Comment from Masoud
July 15, 2016 at 9:23 pm

Greetings. Regarding your afore-mentioned assertions I can point out not only CLT but all other methods and approaches lack. Rote-learning a whole slew of grammar messages again is not of prime priority. To put my proposals into a nutshell, I strongly believe that “whole person” and “affective domain” pave the pathway for every pupil and he or she can reap ripe fruits of language.


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January 23, 2017 at 2:17 am

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Pingback from Language is for communication, but… – Mary C. Tillotson
June 8, 2018 at 10:46 am

[…] to school, but generally, it means more focus on communication as opposed to grammatical accuracy. Here’s one ESL teacher who disagrees. Based on your experience of language learning, what do you […]

Comment from AJ
January 16, 2019 at 2:02 pm

David Barker: Please don’t present any arguments via academic sources.

Also David Barker: Makes argument by posting academic sources.

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